Peyote Songs

Peyote songs are the prayer music and ceremonial heart of the Native American Church. The songs have traditionally been sung, accompanied by the gourd rattle and water drum, in the various languages and musical styles of the indigenous peoples from which the church drew its membership.

At the same time, the pan-Indian nature of the church made it a powerful vehicle for the diffusion of musical styles and content. Early studies of peyote songs, dating from the 1940s, found Navajo peyote singers using the Ute musical style, and recognizably the same peyote song among the Tarahumara, Navajo, and Cheyenne. Such studies can be helpful in tracing the historical spread of the new religious movement.

An important aspect of peyote songs is their use of non-lexical vocables — sequences of phonemes without conventional semantic content, but meaningful to the singer in the context of the ceremony, and often an indication of the song's origin as a spiritual gift. Peyote songs often combine the consonants y, w, h, c, k, t, x, and n with vowels, in the sequence CVCVCV... to produce vocables such as the important peyote word heyowicinayo.

Beginning in the 1990s — their first CD was released in 1995 — two singers, Verdell Primeaux, a Sioux, and Johnny Mike, a Navajo, developed a new form of peyote music they called healing songs, characterized by mesmeric and meditative vocal harmonies and frequently without the paradigmatic driving beat of the water drum and gourd rattle.

Brian Stoner

The songs, sung in Lakota and Navajo, became immensely popular, not only with Native Americans, but also among the same audience that was eagerly purchasing the similarly meditative flute recordings of R. Carlos Nakai. Their crossover appeal is evidenced by the fact that, in 1998, their seventh recording, Peyote Songs of the Native American Church, won both the Native American Music Award for Best Traditional Music and the New Age Voice Music Award for Traditional Native American Music.

Their haunting music, however, embodied a partial disconnection from the traditional roots of the peyote song, where the gourd rattle and water drum have traditionally been an integral part of the ceremony, and tying the soaked deerskin drumhead onto the cast-iron drum kettle is an important and symbolically resonant part of the preparation. Indeed, this disconnection in part drove their popularity. One music reviewer — apparently intending to be complimentary — went so far as to say that the new peyote music "transcends the usual ethnographic feel of peyote recordings and becomes true art."

Whitehorse and Crowe

There is now a new generation of peyote singers. The term new generation means, apart from relative youth, two things — first, that the singers have been deeply influenced by the harmonizing peyote songs of Primeaux and Mike, yet most often retain the traditional accompaniment of the gourd rattle and water drum; and, second, that they have MySpace pages and distribute their videos on YouTube, and selectively incorporate English into their songs.

Three of these singers are Brian Stoner, from the Ponca and Cherokee tribes of Oklahoma; and the brothers Maynard Whitehawk and Lance Crowe, of Plains Anishinabe and Saulteaux heritage, who sing together under the name Wikiwam Ahsin, which are Anishinabe words usually translated as tipi rock. I have attached two representative videos below.

The first video features a song set from the album With Love and Faith We Pray, which was named the Best Spiritual Album at the 2007 Indian Summer Music Festival, and which features Whitehawk and Crowe joining Stoner on several songs. The second features a set from Whitehawk and Crowe's eponymous album Wikiwam Ahsin. Listen for the children's songs at the end.


  1. dear Steve,
    i find myself having to respond yet again. my wife and i are sitting out our kitchen table, looking out over several hundred acres of wood and pasture...drinking a hot cup of chai on a windy and rainy day in Oregon...and listening...inspired by drums, voices, rhythms of the Peyote Songs. for young born old, and old born young again; and yet again. and it brings such joy to our hearts to hear the old music of this Turtle Island, sung so soulfully by a new generation of young bloods.

    yesterday we had a huge bald eagle land in our lower pasture. first ever in this area. thank you for pointing your fine compass into such rich and soulful territory...

  2. I envy you your chai and eagle. Thank you for browsing in the blog and leaving your inspiring comments.

  3. Steve's way
    Heyo wa ne he yana
    he ne
    heyo wa ne he ya na he
    yo we
    Steve's way
    heyo wa ne he he ya
    heya na hende yo we...

  4. Thank you for making me smile. Allow me to make a public recommendation of your dating services.

  5. Welcome to the blog! Please wander around, leave comments, and subscribe if you wish. I am always happy to hear from a country that is colder than Chicago. :-)

    I went on over to your blog, enjoyed the beautiful pictures, and was greeted by Walela. What a treat!